Teachers are human beings. When I was a kid I had no idea. I’ve been travelling back in my mind to my school days a lot lately, replaying interactions teenage me had with certain teachers, and seeing things in a completely different light to how I did back then. I can step into the heads of those old teachers of mine, see where they were coming from. Because I am them now. I’m a teacher. How that happened I do not know, but it did, and it has been my profession on and off for ten years this year. And yea, teachers are human beings. Flawed. Unhinged. And with a beautifully twisted and well articulated sense of humour. That last sentence is open to accusations of writer’s bias. So be it.
I know that teachers are these things not only because I am one, that would be too small a sample section, but because I am also surrounded by them. Most of the things I do I do with teachers. I hang out with teachers, I drink with teachers, I get stoned with teachers, I discuss life with teachers, I argue with teachers, I sleep with teachers, I watch football with teachers, I get my advice from teachers. The woman currently the object of my attentions is a teacher. I even have a teacher for a flatmate. My living-room has a massive whiteboard on the wall and a fold-up table used solely for giving evening lessons. My living-room is a classroom with settees and a telly, for fuck’s sake! So I feel I am qualified to speak about teachers.
I was, for want of a better word, a challenge to my teachers. A pain in the arse. Although they must have liked my company, because they chose on an almost daily basis to spend an extra hour (sometimes two) of their time with me after the final bell had rung for the day, in detention. Man, in the winter I rarely got home before dark. And I only lived up the road. Detention. How is that allowed?
As far as my unwise mind was concerned, I was in a state of war. The teachers my despised enemy. I didn’t even need Fox News to talk me into a completely unjust, pointless and unwinnable conflict. I was born up for it. And it was easy to go into battle every day against an enemy that wasn’t human. I didn’t have to worry about empathy kicking in. It wasn’t like they had feelings or personalities, was it? They were robots. Authoritarian robots made of stainless steel, powered by anger, that lubricated their rusting hinges with coffee and fags. They stank of the cocktail. They didn’t have homes to go to; dinner to eat; friends to catch up with; lovers to pain over. They didn’t lie in bed on a Monday night feeling devastated that there were still four more days of school before the weekend. No, after the final bell went and the only kids left on the premises were the rough lot smoking fags by the bike sheds, and me, picking chewing gum from the underside of tables in detention, the caretaker would go round to each classroom, turn the teacher off by the little switch behind the ear lobe, and then carefully carry the robot to the storage room and chuck it in with all the others, where the residual energy of anger built up over the day would float around the unventilated atmosphere and recharge the robots ready for the following morning, when the caretaker would come in and turn them all back on again. There was no room for reasoning with these representatives of oppression. They were fair game. If you cut them they did not bleed.
Of course, there were exceptions. There was everyone’s favourite fill-in teacher, the degenerate gambler who lived out of his car, for example. To this day one of the most flawed but interesting humans I’ve ever come across. And there was the young maths teacher, fresh out of university, Essex boy. One night a few mates and I were at the Goldstone Ground watching Brighton play against Southend when we spotted him in the away section supporting his hometown team against ours. It was like that story of when on Christmas Day in 1914 British and German soldiers decided to take a break in killing each other to climb out of their trenches and meet in No Man’s Land for a kickabout. We saw him, he saw us, we moved across the terraces to the fencing that separated us lot from his lot, he did the same, and we spent the entire game at the point behind the goal where home and away met, exchanging banter and having a laugh. For that night he wasn’t our teacher and we weren’t his lairy pupils, we were all just lads watching the football together. I am only just remembering this now. I had forgotten it. There was my English teacher, a middle-aged woman who was married to another English teacher. I didn’t like him too much, but her I did have a soft spot for. Although you wouldn’t have known it at times, going by how difficult I could make it for her to teach a class with my disruptiveness. I could never understand why she used to get so angry with me. Livid. So what if I was lazy and more interested in showing off to my mates? Why did that have any effect on her? I get it now. She saw potential in me, she saw that I was choosing to waste that potential, and it pissed her off. She, on numerous occasions, sent home to my parents pieces of creative writing I’d done for coursework, always accompanied with a letter saying how exceptional it was and how she believed I would come good in the end if I just applied myself more often. She also used to enter my poetry and short stories into competitions she had heard about, or submit them for publication in anthologies. Sometimes I’d be on detention after school with a different teacher, and they would hand me a writing task to do that had been given to them by my English teacher, that she thought would provide a better use of my time. And when I had detention with her, she would take me to her little library/office and show me different books that she thought I would find stimulating. I always acted like I couldn’t care less, but in reality I loved English class most of the time. I loved it when we were studying Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, How to Kill a Mocking Bird, and also The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I loved it even more when we had to do creative writing for GCSE coursework. I remember that I wasn’t a big fan of A Streetcar Named Desire, though. I don’t remember why. Just that I didn’t like it. Another thing that I remember about my English teacher is that when I bunked off her classes, she would go out of her way to catch up with me later on and seek an explanation, and when I was unable to give a valid excuse she would punish me with detention. I resented her for this deeply, as by the second half of Year 10 I was a professional truant. Not literally. It was unpaid. But I was hardly ever in school. I would go in at 8.40 for registration, then I’d jump the fence and spend the morning keeping my head down in Brighton’s record shops, listening to the latest white labels, deciding what to spend the money from my three paper-rounds on, then I’d go back to school at 1.45 for afternoon registration, then back over the fence. I rarely got any shit for it, as most of my teachers took it as a Brucie Bonus when they realised they didn’t have to deal with me in their class and so just turned a blind eye. When I passed them in the corridors it was never mentioned. Apart from when I ran into my English teacher.
‘And where were you yesterday during fifth period?’
‘Um, I wanna say at the dentist.’
‘Nice try. See me outside my classroom after school.’
‘Oh but come off it, Miss!’
‘See me after school.’
I understand now that this was because she cared. She wasn’t doing it for herself. And from spending time in school staff-rooms in five different countries I can say with confidence that the one thing most teachers genuinely care about is the progress of the kids they teach. Yea there are exceptions to the rule, but not many. When I’m disappointed in one of my students, genuinely disappointed, it’s not because I feel they’ve let me down; it’s the old cliché – they’ve let themselves down. And that always hurts. I don’t know when I turned into this old man. I read my words back and I’m like, ‘Shit! When did it happen that I stopped being the recipient of such words, but rather the donator?’ Ah man, you can’t fight the years. In the days and nights leading up to an exam for one of the struggling kids, I’m more nervous than they are, because I don’t want them to go through another setback when they’ve worked so hard to try and turn it around. When I come into class and find out they’ve passed, it makes my week. On the unfortunate times when the news isn’t so good, I have to pick that kid’s confidence up again. Put the extra time in. Do a better job of teaching them. Make sure they pass the next one.
For some reason, probably because I was one, I get the most enjoyment out of teaching the kids with ‘troubles.’ The ones that either the parents or somebody from the school feels the need to come and warn me about first. Kids with attitude problems are the best. Because I know the path to success isn’t to battle them, but merely to stimulate their brains. Earn their respect, don’t just expect it. Do all of the good things that a few of my teachers did when handling me, and completely leave out all of the negative stuff: The detentions, the singling kids out in front of their peers, losing your cool and shouting at a kid, letting a kid get to you. That’s the main thing. I was able to get under the skin of almost all of my teachers, make the right comment, touch the right nerve, and then that was it, they weren’t acting cooly or rationally anymore. They let emotion cloud things. Some of them wanted to destroy me, I could see it. I loved it. Maybe some of them just needed to smoke a bit more weed in the evenings. Chill out a touch. I don’t have that problem. No kid can get me angry in class. I’m just not wired that way. And these kids are always won over quickly, you get them on side. Encourage them. Make them see that they can take more pride in learning than they can in playing the clown. Fuck, I wish I had listened when they tried to tell me that. Man! And when these kids turn it around and start flying, it’s no surprise. Because these kids are always the ones with a load upstairs. They just get bored easily.
All of those teachers that I remember fondly from my school days had one thing in common. They talked to me like a human, instead of trying to just repress me. They went out of their way to attempt to make a connection. And they are the ones that I learnt from. They are the ones whose example I try to follow.
Not too long ago I received a message in my FB inbox completely out of the blue from one of my teachers, another young bloke starting out on his career path back then in the 90s, another who also took the time. I remember one detention in particular where it was just me and him in a classroom, him sat at his desk, me sat at one of the desks facing him. And he wanted to talk. I didn’t. So I ignored his questions. Then he stood up, took a difficult maths book from the shelf, dropped it down in front of me and said ‘Okay then, if you don’t want to talk, start at exercise seven on page 51 and work your way through from there.’ I took one look down at the incomprehensible numbers and symbols on the page, closed the book, sighed and said ‘Okay.’ And he talked to me about life. He wanted to understand me a bit. He just kept asking questions. Why was I the way I was? He didn’t pull his punches either. I was wasting my potential and it would hurt me for the rest of my life if I didn’t do something to turn it around, he told me. He also told me some bits about his own life. And we talked about football. He was a man that you could have a laugh with. He gave banter out that equalled any he received. And everyone respected him. He was a really good teacher. A good man. I was obviously surprised then to hear from him for the first time in the 14 years since I left school, even though evidence does exist that proves I was the one who started the conversation. Not that I had any idea. It was seven years ago. I had sent him a message in 2007. A period when I was working in a language school in Brighton, and also a period in which I was accustomed to enjoying a few illegal substances in the evening. I have no doubt that I was having one of my reflective comedowns that used to be a regular fixture of my week, thinking back to teachers of my childhood and being able to humanise them in my mind. Basically I was having a day in 2007 almost identical to the one I’m having today, only difference is that I’m stoned these days rather than off my tits.
So that was what I wrote seven years ago. And this is what I got back seven years later:
And I smiled. Because I know exactly what he meant. I have taught those pupils to which he refers. I taught one kid years ago in Slovenia who was exactly the same sort of little wotzit that I was at his age. He gave me the same grief. The same! Luka. I get it. I understand it now. My teachers were human.
They had shit going on in their lives. They got their hearts broken. They broke hearts. They got pissed with their mates. They got high. They woke up in different beds. They wandered around aimlessly trying to make sense of their lives. And they had to stand up in front of a load of young teenagers every day and put all of their own problems to one side and to appear unflappable at all times, doing everything they could to try and help their kids succeed. Because they cared. And I didn’t know it. But now I do. Completely.
I don’t imagine anyone has read to the bottom of this post. I fear I bored any reader a long time ago and they closed the page. For this reason I feel safe in ending on the word calamari. Calamari.